Friday, September 28, 2012

October 1 - 7th, 2012

Weekly Calendar

October 1st, 2012  Office is closed.
October 2nd, 2012
9:00 am – 3:30 pm  Clergy Day
7:30 pm  ‘Unconditional’ Book study at St. Margaret’s.
October 4th, 2012 
7:00 am Men and Women’s Morning Bible Study at the
Bogani Café.
October 7th, 2012   Thanksgiving
9:00 am Holy Communion
9:45 am Coffee Between Services
10:30 am Holy Communion and Sunday School 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sermon for September 23rd: James 3:13 - 4:10

Wisdom and Humility

I don’t remember thinking very much about ‘wisdom’ when I was a young Christian, back in my teens. ‘Joy’ and ‘love’, ‘power’ and ‘peace’ – those were ideas I was interested in and excited about, but I don’t really remember ‘wisdom’ figuring on my radar screen at all. I do remember very clearly, however, the first time that I really paid attention as wisdom was demonstrated in a church context.

Marci and I were living in northeastern Saskatchewan where I was working alongside the Rev. Ken Burningham in the three-point parish of Arborfield, Red Earth, and Shoal Lake. It was time for the annual general meeting at the church in Arborfield, and for reasons that would take too long to explain, Ken was at the meeting but I was chairing it. We were faced with a difficult situation in that there was an elderly lady in the congregation, Mrs. Lindsay, who had been the envelope secretary for years, but who we all felt might be finding the job too much in her advancing years. I should add that she was not at the meeting herself. The question was, what should we do?

Some people felt that we should appoint someone else to the position even though Mrs. Lindsay was not present to discuss it. Others felt that this would make her feel as if we were casting her aside. There was a long discussion in which we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, and finally I looked across at Ken, who had been very quiet, and asked him, “What do you think we should do?” He replied, “I think we should appoint an assistant to help her out”.

Immediately it was as if the fog cleared. Everyone agreed, and there was a man present who knew Mrs. Lindsay quite well and was willing to become her assistant. The long-term outcome was very good; it turned out, as we had suspected, that she was beginning to find the job too much, and within a few months she had asked if she could step down and hand over her responsibilities to the assistant. No one’s feelings were hurt, and yet the work got done to everyone’s satisfaction. That, I think, was the first time I consciously thought to myself, “Now that was wisdom in action!” Ever since then, I’ve tried to take note when I’ve seen practical wisdom, and I’ve also noticed how highly wisdom figures in the Bible.

In our epistle for today James returns to the subject of wisdom, which he’s already mentioned earlier in the letter. He talks in verse 13 about the person who is ‘wise and understanding’, and a few verses later he contrasts ‘earthly wisdom’ with ‘the wisdom from above’.

But before we dive into these verses I think we need to remind ourselves that James is not the first person in the Bible to think and write about wisdom. The Old Testament has a whole genre of books which scholars refer to as ‘wisdom literature’; it includes books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which gather together wise sayings to guide people in the art of practical godly living. In the wisdom literature there is general agreement about where wisdom starts: Proverbs 1:7 says ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ - in other words, we need to remember that the relationship between us and God is not an equal one. God is infinitely good and holy and powerful, but we are not; we are his creations, and our understanding and wisdom are limited. True wisdom, then, comes from the Lord, and we need to go to him in humility to learn the best path through life.

So wisdom in the Old Testament is not some abstract intellectual concept, some esoteric search for the meaning of life. It is intensely practical; it’s about discovering the kind of life God designed us human beings for, and learning to live that out in the midst of our ordinary daily occupations. And Jesus agrees with this too. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount he gives us the well-known parable of the wise and foolish builders. The wise man, who built his house on the rock, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and acts on them’ (Matthew 7:24), but the foolish man, who built his house on the sand, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and does not act on them’ (v.26). Wisdom, then, is to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice in our daily lives.

So on the one hand we have this godly wisdom, which is essentially humble; we assume that we don’t have the ability in ourselves to choose the wise path, so we go to God and ask him to teach us true wisdom. As Christians, we believe that God has come to us supremely in Jesus, so we expect that in the life and teaching of Jesus we will find the clearest and most accurate embodiment of the wisdom of God. I think it’s part of our Christian faith that we see Jesus as, at the very least, the wisest man who ever lived, and so following him means looking to him for the wisdom we need in our daily lives.

But on the other hand, there’s another voice in the biblical tradition, a rebellious voice. We first run into it in the third chapter of Genesis where we meet the serpent, who tempts the man and the woman to follow their own path rather than the one God has set out for them. He contradicts God’s instruction to the man and the woman and tells them,
‘God knows that when you eat of (the fruit of the tree) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5).

The next words are very revealing:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6).

Did you hear that phrase: ‘and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise’? Here we have a different path to wisdom; the snake is telling the woman, “There’s something good that God could have given you, but he’s chosen to withhold it. So the only way for you to get it is to strike out on your own, to reject God’s commands and find your own path through life. If you do that, you’ll become as wise as God and you won’t need to keep asking him what to do”. This is the way of arrogance and pride, in which we say to God, ‘Your way sounds interesting, God, but I don’t think it will work in the real world, will it?’ – as if the human race has a great track record of making things work in the real world!

Well, this is the conversation that James is entering into in our reading for today, and he clearly spells out the two kinds of wisdom. In verse 13 he says,
‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’.
And he goes on in verses 17-18 to describe what heavenly wisdom looks like:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

The earthly wisdom, however, is an entirely different animal. Look at verses 14-16:
But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

What sort of wisdom is this? This is what we might call ‘worldly wisdom’, the wisdom that knows how to look out for itself and ignores everyone else. This is the person who knows how to play the game of life in such a way that they get the cream and everyone else gets the dregs. In fact, the primary characteristic of this so-called wisdom is selfishness and self-centredness: a person who has this devilish wisdom is entirely absorbed in their own interests and cares nothing for the interests of others.

Is this likely to produce peace? I don’t think so. In order to have true peace, we need to develop a genuine concern for the well being of others, but if instead we grow a world where everyone thinks only of themselves, this will inevitably bring people into conflict with each other. You want that patch of land? So do I. You want that pot of money? So do I. You want that spot in the centre of the stage? So do I. Well, we all know where that leads, don’t we? Look at chapter 4 verses 1-3:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Are you surprised that James addresses these words to Christians? Do we really expect Christians to murder people when they don’t get what they want? Sadly, one look around the world today will tell us that this does indeed happen. But even if it isn’t literally true, most of us have probably experienced church life that feels like a war zone. ‘Prayer Book or BAS?’ ‘Organ or worship band?’ ‘Ritual and ceremony or hugging and arm-raising?’ ‘Pews or chairs?’ And because we’re sinful human beings, all of us, it’s natural that our first thought is ‘How does this effect me? How come these other people won’t let me have the sort of church service I want?’ When you get a whole church full of people who feel that way, it’s not surprising that there’s conflict, is it?

So what’s the way out? James would tell us that we need to remember that God is God and I am not, so we need to step down from the throne, apologise to God for sitting on his chair, and take our place in humility before him, asking him to guide us rather than always assuming that what’s good for me must inevitably be good for everyone else as well. In verse 6 James quotes again from the Book of Proverbs:
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”.
I’m reminded of a quote from the end of The Hobbit; I hope it survives in Peter Jackson’s upcoming movie adaptation! Gandalf is talking with Bilbo about how his actions have helped the old prophecies to be fulfilled, and Bilbo is shaking his head at this idea. Gandalf says,
“And why not? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies just because you helped them come about. You don't really suppose do you that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You're a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I'm quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world after all.”

“Thank goodness!” Bilbo replied.

Yes indeed – I’m only a little fellow in a wide world after all, and I need to remember that on a regular basis! And so, after encouraging us to repent of our sins and return to the Lord, James ends this section by saying,
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (4:10).

So where are we going with this today? What does it mean for you and me as we leave this place and go out into the world as followers of Jesus?

James has described for us the world we live in – a world torn by conflict and war, a world of winners and losers, a world where the winner takes all and the loser has to pay the price. And he’s asking us, as the biblical writers so often do, “Do you seriously think you can change this without changing the basic selfish orientation of the human heart?”

True wisdom starts with a recognition that God is God and I am not. My knowledge is limited, but God knows everything. I’ve seen only a tiny corner of his universe, but God has seen all of it. I’ve only seen fifty-three years, but the whole of time and eternity is spread out before God. And as C.S. Lewis pointed out once, when I argue with God, I’m arguing with the very person who gives me the ability to argue in the first place! Rather strange, don’t you think?

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. A proper awe and respect and reverence for God will lead to a desire to learn his ways and put them into practice in our daily lives. And this will mean recognizing that I’m not the lead character in God’s play; there are seven billion others on the planet as well, and every one of them is important to God. So rather than being concerned that everyone recognize what an admirable person I am, I need to be shining the spotlight on others, so that everyone gets their share of the light.

Let me close by reading you the last two verses of chapter 3 from the ‘New Living Translation’; I think it’s very helpful:
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, It is also peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favouritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Roster for October 2012

October 7th  Thanksgiving
Coffee between services
Greeter/Sidespeople: T. Willacy/B. Cavey
Counter: T. Willacy/T. Cromarty
Reader:T. Cromarty
(Readings: Joel 2: 21 – 27, Psalm 126, 1Timothy 2: 1 – 7)
Lay Administrants:  M. Rys/L. Thompson
Intercessor:  D. MacNeil
Lay Reader:  E. Gerber  (Matthew 6: 25 – 33)
Altar Guild (green)J. Mill/P. Major
Prayer Team:  K. Hughes/S. Jayakaran
Sunday School (School Age):  M. Cromarty
Sunday School (Preschool): T. Laffin
Kitchen: - 9:45 am  M. Woytkiw
Music: W. Pyra
Altar Servers:  E. Jayakaran

October 14th  20th Sunday after Pentecost
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Hughes
Counter:  G. Hughes/D. Sanderson
Reader:  B. Popp
(Readings: Job 23: 1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22: 1 – 15, Hebrews 4: 12 – 16)
Lay Administrants:  C. Aasen/D. MacNeill
Intercessor:  M. Rys
Lay Reader:  L. Thompson  (Mark 10: 17 – 31)
Altar Guild: (green) M. Woytkiw/A. Shutt
Prayer Team: L. Sanderson/E. Gerber
Sunday School (School Age): M. Aasen
Sunday School (Preschool): M. Eriksen
Kitchen:  B. Cavey
Music:  E. Thompson
Altar Servers:  A. Jayakaran

October 21st  21st Sunday after Pentecost (J. Shantz)
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Schindels
Counter:  D. Schindel/ S. Jayakaran
Reader:  M. Rys
(Readings: Job 38: 1-7,34 – 41, Psalm 104: 1 – 9, Hebrews 5: 1 – 10)
Lay Administrants:  G. Hughes/E. Gerber
Intercessor:  C. Ripley
Lay Reader:  D. MacNeill  (Mark 10: 35 – 45)
Altar Guild (green)  M. Lobreau/L. Schindel
Prayer Team:  M. Chesterton/M. Rys
Sunday School (School Age): J. McDonald
Sunday School (Preschool):  M. Horn
Kitchen:  A. Shutt
Altar Servers:  E. Jayakaran

October 28th  22nd Sunday after Pentecost(Good Works Fair/Trunk or Treat)
Greeter/Sidespeople:  The Aasens
Counter:  C. Aasen/L. Schindel
Reader:  D. Schindel
(Readings: Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17, Psalm 34: 1 – 8, Hebrews 7: 23 – 28)
Intercessor:  T. Chesterton
Lay Reader:  B. Popp  (Mark 10: 46 - 52)
Altar Guild (green):J. Mill/MW
Sunday School (School Age):  N. Muwanguzi
Sunday School (Preschool): S. Doyle
Kitchen:  V & J Goodwin
Music: R. Mogg

September 24 - 30, 2012

Sept. 24th, 2012  Office is closed.
Sept. 25th, 2012  
7:30 pm  ‘Unconditional’ Book study starts at St. Margaret’s.
Sept. 27th, 2012 
7:00 am Men and Women’s Morning Bible Study at the
Bogani Café.
Sept. 29th, 2012
3:30 – 5:30 pm  Spaghetti Church
September 30th, 2012   Back to Church Sunday
9:00 am Holy Communion
10:30 am Morning Worship and Sunday School 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sermon for September 16th: James 3:1-12

Taming the Tongue

When I was in one of my early parish appointments, in rural Saskatchewan, Marci and I used to run a little youth group in our home on Sunday evenings. Usually about six kids came out; they were all related to each other, and the truth is that we weren’t actually that much older than them. A couple of them weren’t too happy about being there, but their parents insisted, so along they came! But the nice thing is that we’re still in touch with most of them, and we see them from time to time when we visit Saskatchewan in the summer time. Most of them are still active Christians, thank God, and of course parents too (in a couple of cases, parents of married children, which tells you how old Marci and I are!).

A couple of years ago we were visiting with an extended family, including a couple of people who had been in our youth group. One of the girls – now a mother of four herself – said, “And where would we be today if it hadn’t been for that youth group? We certainly wouldn’t be following the Lord”.

That’s the sort of thing that sets you thinking about ‘influence’ – the way your words and actions can have an effect on people that you don’t even realize. Today our reading from James is talking about the tongue, so I want to focus in for a few minutes on the Christian teachers we have in our lives and how they influence us.

When I was thirteen my Dad asked me a question that changed the course of my life. He had been lending me Christian books to read, and one of them had gotten me very curious. One night at our youth group meeting he said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” I knew he was right, and later that night I prayed a prayer committing my life to Christ. That was the beginning of my conscious Christian journey, and it all happened as a result of Dad’s question. Words can be very powerful.

In my late teens I went off to Toronto to train to become an Anglican evangelist. I was feeling a bit apprehensive, because lately I’d been beginning to suspect that, although I had a very lively experience of Christianity, I couldn’t really give a reason for it, in the sense of an intellectual case that would stand up under fire. Again, my Dad helped me out. In the airport in Vancouver we stopped in the bookstore, and Dad bought me a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, with the recommendation that I read it. Most of you will know C.S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia stories, but you may not know that he also wrote some excellent books explaining the Christian faith. I read Mere Christianity and it was exactly what I needed. I know it had an influence on me, because I lent it a few years ago to a United Church minister, and when he gave it back to me he said, “Do you have any idea how much this guy has influenced you?”

These are just a couple of examples of the way the words of wise Christian teachers have had an enormous influence on my life. Words can be have a great effect for good, especially when they’re backed up by the way the person lives their life. And the opposite is also true, of course: the words of an evil person can have great effect for evil. Adolf Hitler was a powerful speaker and he used words to tragic effect; more than fifty million people died in the Second World War because of the power of his oratory. Or think of the way the words of some parents haunt their children their whole lives long, leaving a legacy of despair and hopelessness because all the children experienced was criticism and judgement, not encouragement and hope. Or again, think of the power of cult leaders – people like Jim Jones, who claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus and led the mass suicide of more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Words can have an enormous influence, for evil as well as for good.

No doubt this is why James says in today’s reading, ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness’ (James 3:1). I note in passing that, in the original context, when James talks about ‘teachers’ he’s talking about those who teach the Christian faith in the community of the Church. It may well apply to schoolteachers too, but the original text wasn’t talking about them.

It’s easy for us to see why James was so concerned about this. A word or two in the wrong direction and someone’s life can be sent down the wrong path for years. One sermon questioning a fundamental Christian belief, or advocating something not quite right, and a whole church can be led astray. One word out of place in a pastoral conversation, and a vulnerable listener can be encouraged to make a disastrous move that will affect the rest of their life.

Such is the power of the tongue – or the pen, for that matter. Controlled by God’s Spirit, harnessed for good, it can have an incalculable effect for good. But when it’s out of control, or used for unscrupulous and selfish ends, then it can result in great evil. That’s why James teaches us that the control of our tongue is one of the most important parts of our Christian discipleship.

Where did James get this idea from? Well, from his brother Jesus, of course! Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:34-37:
 “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”.

Jesus, of course, speaks these words to all of us, not just to ministers and Christian teachers, and James broadens it out to apply to all of us too, in verse 2 of our reading for today when he says, ‘For all of us make many mistakes’. He goes on to use several illustrations to make two points: that the tongue is powerful, and that the tongue is hard to control.

The first illustration is of the horse; look at verse 3:
‘If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies’.
The horse is powerful and fast, but it can be controlled by using a very small instrument – the bit and the bridle. Once in place,, the bit and bridle can be used very effectively to guide the direction the horse takes. And to James, the tongue is like a bit and bridle: using it, we can guide the lives of others and have an enormous impact on them. The tongue seems so small and the crowd seems so huge, but watch them as they are swayed by a powerful speech! And one person’s life can be marked forever by one sentence from another person – as my life has been marked by the question my Dad asked me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?”

The second illustration is of the ship; look at verses 4 and 5:
‘Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great exploits’.
The ship travels all over the world carrying cargo and passengers. If James thought the ships in his day were large, imagine what he would have said today about supertankers and aircraft carriers! But the direction of the ship can be set by one person using a comparatively small tool – the rudder. James imagines the rudder getting big ideas about itself – ‘boasting of great exploits’, as he says. People are sometimes aware that they have this power, and boast in it; Karl Marx famously said, ‘Give me twenty-six soldiers of lead and I’ll conquer the world’ – referring to the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in the printing press, of course. Sounds like he was ‘boasting of great exploits’ to me!

These first two illustrations emphasize the power and influence of the tongue, but James goes on to give us two more that underline how difficult it is to control it. The first one is the illustration of a fire:
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. (vv.5b-6).

Most of you will remember how quickly the Slave Lake forest fire spread last summer, and the devastating effect once it reached the town. Here in Alberta we’re used to watching forest fires each year and we know how hard they are to control once they get going. And we know that the tongue is like a fire. How many times has someone spread a piece of gossip about someone else, and the next thing you know, it’s spread, as we say, like wildfire, and perhaps an innocent person’s reputation is ruined forever. Or someone in one part of the world makes incendiary comments on a blog post, and the next thing you know people in another part of the world are rioting and killing. There’s a ‘Pandora’s Box’ effect about speech, isn’t there? So often, once a thing has been said, there’s no calling it back.

The tongue is like a forest fire, but it’s also like a wild animal. James exaggerates slightly at the beginning of this one! Here’s what he says:
For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (vv.7-8).
Of course, James isn’t strictly accurate here: there are many species of wild animals that can’t be tamed (anyone tried taming a mosquito?). But the point he’s making is clear: taming the tongue is more difficult than taming a wild animal. Anyone who’s seriously tried to do it knows how difficult it is. If you’re in the habit of being argumentative, or judgemental, or gossiping, or critical, it’s very difficult to get out of that habit and learn to use your power of speech positively rather than negatively.

Nowadays, of course, there’s a whole school of thought that says we shouldn’t even try to control the tongue. We’ve been told by pop psychology that if we have these feelings of rage or frustration or vengeance, we should just ‘vent’ and let it all come out; if we don’t, we’re told - if we just bottle it up inside - it will eventually lead to violence, either toward others or ourselves. Of course, millions of people around the world now use Facebook for just this sort of venting. Angry because you got cut off in traffic? Post a nasty comment about the other driver on Facebook – addressed to him, of course, even though he can’t read it – and you’ll instantly feel better (although your Facebook friends might not!).
Well, there may be some truth in this, but there’s something else we might want to think about too. We’re given the impression that there’s a finite load of resentment or anger down there, and if we just vent it, eventually we’ll come to the end of it. But what if that’s not the case? What if there’s an infinite supply? What if getting into the habit of exploding with rage at people just increases our propensity to do so? What if speaking out in anger just makes us a more angry person?

Remember what Jesus said in the quote from Matthew I read earlier?
“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure”. (Matthew 12:34b-35)
What comes out of your mouth, in other words, is a reflection of what’s in your heart. James says much the same thing in the verses at the end of our reading, where the illustrations come thick and fast:
With (the tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (vv.9-12).

James has been rather negative about the tongue, and we might even be led to believe that it’s impossible to change it and use it for good. Certainly he wants us to know how hard it is. I remember hearing once about a sign on a road in the Australian outback: ‘Choose your rut carefully; you’ll be in it for the next thirty miles!’ Human habits are like that; they dig deep grooves in our brains, and once they’ve been dug, it’s hard to change course and dig new ones.

Hard, but not impossible. Alcoholics do learn to stop drinking. Anger management classes do help people to stop expressing their anger in inappropriate ways. And the Spirit of God can go deep down inside us and heal that poisoned well, so that what comes out is not abuse and hatred, but love and compassion.

It takes two things to tame the tongue: a decision on our part to recognize the problem and do something about it, and the help of God’s Holy Spirit.

James is not wasting his breath. He wouldn’t be writing these things to us if he thought the situation was hopeless. He’s writing to challenge us, to lead us to recognize the problem and to come to a genuine repentance. And once we do that, we can put steps in place to begin a process of change.

Let me give you what I hope is a rather humorous illustration: the year I gave up swearing for Lent. I should explain that I don’t think that swearing is actually a very serious issue – certainly not on the level of vengeance or selfishness or conceit or lust – but I was getting a little tired of my potty mouth. I’d picked it up in the Northwest Territories, where the locals seemed to think those words were just part of ordinary English, and I’d gotten used to it. But in the Lent of 2006 I decided I wanted to change direction, so I gave up swearing for Lent.

At the time Marci and I were in the habit of going to a local pub on Monday nights for an open stage, and I decided that every time I broke my resolution I’d fine myself a dollar off my Monday night beer money. Of course, the other musicians there knew I usually had a beer, so they noticed the first week when I had coffee instead. One of them asked me what was going on, and when I explained it to him, he burst out laughing! For the rest of Lent he watched me like a hawk each Monday night; “Pretty rough week, was it?” he’d ask if he saw me having coffee!

Well, I can’t claim that I entirely eliminated the habit, but I certainly got a little more control over it. And in the same way, it is possible for us to put a framework in place in our lives that will help us change the way we use our tongue, for good and not for evil.

But we can’t do it by ourselves. Remember, Jesus told us that the trouble is within, in the heart. So let’s close with some words he spoke about how the heart can be cleansed and redirected. These words are found in John 7:37-39:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’.

The Holy Spirit can fill us and cleanse the poisoned well within, so that what comes out is no longer poison, but living water. So this week, let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will fill us and help us to get control of our tongue.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sept 17th - 23rd, 2012

Sept. 17th, 2012  Office is closed.
Sept. 18th, 2012  
11:15 am Holy Communion at St. Joseph’s Hospital
Sept. 19h, 2012   
7:15 pm  Vestry Meeting
Sept. 20th, 2012 
7:00 am Men and Women’s Morning Bible Study at the
Bogani Café.
6:00 pm  Wedding Rehearsal
Sept. 22th, 2012
Major/Kane Wedding
September 23rd, 2012   16th Sunday after Pentecost
9:00 am Holy Communion
10:30 am Holy Communion and Sunday School

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sermon for September 9th: James 2:1-17

Faith and Actions

In the two thousand years or so of Christian history, Martin Luther is one of the most important characters in the story. In the sixteenth century he led a movement that eventually became the Protestant Reformation; it ended up splitting the western Christian Church, not just into two factions, but into many. Nowadays, of course, all the various branches of Lutheran Christianity take their name from him, but many others look to him as well and acknowledge his influence. And Martin Luther did not like the Letter of James; he called it ‘An epistle made of straw’ – hardly a ringing endorsement. Why was this?

In the sixteenth century death was a very present reality, and people spent a lot of time worrying about whether they would go to heaven or hell when they died. How could they know they had done enough to earn a place in heaven? Martin Luther went into a German monastery at a young age and spent many years in study and prayer, but he could not get any peace on this subject. Was he good enough? Had he done enough good deeds to earn his heavenly reward?

Luther’s soul was in torment over this issue, until the day he noticed a place in the New Testament where St. Paul quotes from the prophet Habakkuk: ‘The just shall live by faith’. For Luther, it was as if a light came on in his soul: it was not about doing good works; it was about hearing God’s promise and believing it. Luther remembered the place in Genesis where God promised Abraham that he would have many descendants and, as the text says, ‘Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord accounted it to him as righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6). That’s what I need to do, Luther thought: I need to believe God’s promises of forgiveness and new life through Christ, and put my trust in him. And for the first time, he felt an inner peace and a certainty that his sins were forgiven and that he was going to go to heaven. That, in a nutshell, was the message he spent the rest of his life spreading.

So it’s not surprising that Luther hated James. He loved the writings of Paul, because Paul taught what he called ‘justification by faith’, which Luther interpreted to mean that Christians are not put right with God by doing good works, but by faith alone. But then Luther turned to today’s reading from James and read these words:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?... So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:14, 17).

Luther was horrified by this. All those years of torment about whether or not he had done enough to go to heaven threatened to overwhelm him all over again. To him, James was teaching ‘works righteousness’, not the gospel (or good news) of justification by faith. If he could have done so, Luther would have removed James from the New Testament. His opponents in the Catholic Church, on the other hand, loved James and quoted him often to show that Luther and those nasty Protestants had it all wrong: faith without works is dead, so you can’t be saved just by faith, you have to do good works as well.

Nowadays scholars have begun to suspect that neither Luther and the Protestants nor the Pope and the Catholics really properly understood what James and Paul were on about. And part of their misunderstanding was to forget that the New Testament was written by different people who didn’t always use words in the same way. What did Paul and James actually mean by those words like ‘faith’, ‘works’, ‘saved’, and ‘justification’? If they used the same words, did they mean the same things, or is it possible they had different ways of using the language?

A full answer to that question is beyond the scope of one short Sunday sermon, but let me just focus in for a minute on that word, ‘works’. What does it mean? Luther thought it meant ‘Living a good life so that you can escape from hell and go to heaven when you die’. It meant ‘earning your ticket to paradise’. But is that what James actually meant by it? When we look at the examples he gives, it seems doubtful. Look at verses 14-17 again:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill”, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

So what does James mean by ‘good works’ in this passage? Obviously, he’s talking about practical things we do to help people who are in need; we might call it ‘compassion in action’. It’s not limited to that of course; later on in the chapter he alludes to Abraham not just believing God, but obeying him by being willing to offer his son on the altar, and to Rahab who believed God and helped the Israelite spies before the battle of Jericho. But I think it’s fair to sum up James’ teaching as ‘If you believe in God, then you will obey him, and the most important way of obeying him is practical love for others’.

If we had been around in the first century to press James a bit on this issue, he might have expressed it this way: Look, let’s suppose you’re sick, very sick in fact, and you go to a doctor for help. You’ve been quite worried about your health, but the doctor sets your fears at rest. “Yes”, he says, “I know you feel pretty bad, but this is not a fatal illness, and in fact I can help you feel better fairly easily. There are a few simple things I want you to do. I’m going to give you this herb to mix in with your wine after supper each night, and I’m going to suggest that you avoid this list of foods that are making you sick, and that you go for a good walk each day and get lots of sleep each night. Do those things, and trust me, you’ll feel fine in a few weeks”.

Now, James might explain to us, if you really believe and have faith in your doctor, what will you do? It’s obvious, isn’t it? You’ll put his teaching into practice and do the things he’s told you to! And you’ll do these things, not to avoid the death sentence – he’s already told you that it’s not a fatal illness - but because you genuinely believe that life will be better for you if you do them. And in the same way, if we truly put our faith and trust in our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will listen to the things he says and put them into practice in our lives – not because we’re scared of going to hell if we don’t, but because we believe that Jesus’ life and teaching show us the sort of life God designed us for.

So ‘good works’, for James, isn’t about a frantic attempt to keep as many commandments as possible so that we can be sure we’re going to heaven. ‘Good works’ is a reminder that if faith is real, it will always show itself in loving actions. And on this Paul and James both agree, because in Galatians 5:6 Paul says,
‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything: the only thing that counts is faith working through love’.
Did you hear that phrase? Faith working through love. If you have faith in Christ, it will lead to a life of loving God with all your heart, and loving your neighbour as yourself, just as Jesus taught us.

So why did Paul teach that we are saved by faith alone, not works? Because Paul was using words differently, and Paul was answering a different question. The question he was answering was, ‘Do you have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian?’ That was a live issue in the early Church: after all, the Jews were God’s chosen people and the Messiah was promised to the Jews, not to everyone. And what were the marks that showed you were a Jew in the ancient world? Well, if you were a guy you were circumcised, and you also observed the Sabbath strictly, along with the feasts of the Jewish calendar, and you ate only kosher food and obeyed all the food laws of Judaism.

We’ve seen that when James uses the word ‘works’, he uses it in close proximity to things like caring for the poor and needy. But when Paul uses the word, ‘works’, he usually uses it in a different context: those Jewish boundary markers - circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, avoiding ham and keeping kosher and so on. So when he says, ‘You’re not saved by works of the law, but by faith in Christ’, what he means is, ‘You don’t have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian. God’s chosen people is now a multinational community, and the thing that marks them out is no longer that they are circumcised and observe the Sabbath and keep kosher; no, the thing that matters is not these works of the law, but that we have put our faith in Jesus – and our faith, of course, is showing itself in love’.

Well, we could go on for a lot longer about these issues, and find out what Paul and James mean by ‘justification’, and the different ways they use the word ‘faith’, and so on, but there’s no time to do that this morning. We need to come back to the actual text we have in front of us, with this wonderful thought in mind: the faith in Christ that we profess is a transformational faith. To come back to our earlier illustration, Christ is the great physician, the doctor who heals us by bringing us not only forgiveness of our sins but also wisdom about how to live, and strength to put that wisdom into practice.

The great creed in ancient Israel was ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one’. James alludes to this in verse 19:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.
If he was speaking to us Anglicans today, James might have said, ‘You believe that the Apostles’ Creed is true? That’s excellent! Mind you, the demons know it’s true too! The only difference is that it scares them out of their wits!’ In other words, faith is not just believing that there is a God, or believing that certain things about God are true. True faith is trust in God, and it will lead to a transformed life.

What sort of transformation? Well, now we can go back to the beginning of the reading for a concrete example of this. We’ve talked about ‘faith working through love’, and we need to remind ourselves that in the Bible love is not about feelings but about actions, actions based on the teaching and example of Jesus.

What do we know about Jesus? One thing we know about him is that he treated everyone as equal in the sight of God. He didn’t say one thing around the rich and another around the poor. He didn’t soft-pedal the hard bits of his message around the rich to avoid offending them, out of fear that they might not put their big cheques on the plate. No - he founded a community in which distinctions of rank and wealth and ethnic origin didn’t mean anything, and that continues to be his will for his church today.

So what does faith in Jesus look like? It means being a community in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect, whether they are rich or poor. In the world around us wealth is power, but that’s not to be the way it is in the church. Listen to James again:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please”, while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there”, or “Sit at my feet”, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Does this sort of thing happen in the Christian community? Indeed it does. Imagine a member of a church who is wealthy and powerful; perhaps this person has given generously to build the church building, or to repair it. Of course the other members are very thankful, but here’s the problem: the wealthy donor seems to think his generosity gives him two votes where everyone else has just one! He seems to think that the congregation is indebted to him, and therefore special attention should be given to his opinions in decisions that are made. Also, the minister should take special care not to offend this person in sermons, because if he leaves, the church will be in big trouble.

What does James have to say about it? Two things, very quickly:

First, he has difficulty believing that people who act in this way are actually Christians. He asks, ‘Do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? ‘ (v.1). How can you say you believe in him when you obviously don’t believe the things he taught and showed us?

Second, he accuses us of being ‘judges with evil thoughts’. Here the New Living Translation gives us a helpful paraphrase:
‘…doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgements are guided by evil motives?’
It isn’t very hard to guess what those ‘evil motives’ might be. Rich people are powerful, and it can be dangerous to offend them. But on the other hand, if we were to curry favour with them, they could be very generous - either to us as individuals, or to our church. So let’s bend a few rules, let’s compromise on a few principles, let’s not say so much about what Jesus has to say about the potential dangers of wealth – all in a good cause, of course! These are the ‘evil motives’ James is talking about.

Okay, let’s bring this to a close and tie it all together. This works on an individual level, and also in terms of the Christian community. Faith without works is dead. On an individual level, it’s not enough for us to say, “I believe in Jesus” and then not do the things that Jesus taught us. The real Jesus, the one who we read about in the gospels, taught us a certain way of life: a life marked by sacrificial love. This is the sort of thing that will change the world, because it will lead to real actions of compassion and mercy toward those who are in need. So let’s not argue about whether we’re saved by faith or works: let’s put our faith in Jesus, and do the good works he taught us to do, works of love and mercy toward everyone!

And it applies on a community level as well. The teachings of the Apostles’ Creed are tremendously important, and it’s wonderful that we stand up and affirm them every week. It’s also wonderful that every week we stand to hear the Gospel and say, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”. But we’re called as a community to practice that faith, and one of the most important ways we do it is by being a community in which there are no distinctions based on wealth, social status, racial origin and so on. Whether you are a millionaire or a welfare recipient, you matter to God, and you ought to matter to this congregation too. If you are able to give ten thousand dollars to our building project, that’s wonderful – but those who are only in a position to give a small gift are equally important, and their vote is just as important. Can I get an ‘Amen’ to that? That’s the sort of family Jesus wants us to be, right?

I told you James was radical, didn’t I? He was radical because he loved his brother Jesus, and believed the things he said. So this week, let’s work on putting our faith into practice by actually helping those who are in need, and by treating rich and poor alike. And when we come back next week, James is going to return to a subject he’s already raised with us once before: ‘taming the tongue’. Stay tuned…!